In this writing, taken from ‘The Ohio River Speaks‘, Will Falk describes the communication, the journey and the relationship shared. Through documenting the journey with the Ohio River Will seeks to strengthens others fighting to protect what is left of the natural world. Read the first and second part of Will’s journey.
Peace: A Song the Ohio River Sings
My physical journey with the Ohio River began where she seeps up through a mat of mud, maple, and bigtooth aspen leaves high in a hollow ringed by round hills in Potter County, Pennsylvania. The brilliant documentary filmmaker, journalist, and Potter County resident, Melissa Troutman and her energetic, thoroughly aquaphilic terrier Runo, took me to find what the maps label as the headwaters of the Allegheny River. If you were presented with a map that displayed only the blue lines of the Ohio River and her tributaries but did not label the tributaries’ names, and you were asked to identify the Ohio’s headwaters, you’d most likely point to the beginning of the Allegheny. In fact, the word “Ohio” is an anglicized version of Ohi:yo’ which is the name given by the Seneca to the whole passage of water beginning in Potter County that runs all the way to the Mississippi.
But, I arrived at another destination, there, too. It was a destination that cannot be driven, hiked, or boated to. It was an internal destination, a place inside of me I needed to reach. As we hiked, I searched for the best place to introduce myself to the river. The Ohio River bubbles up from dozens of springs scattered across the hillsides. She picks her way through tree roots and moss-covered stones before enough of her waters join together to form the first ribbon resembling a stream. Rivers measure time in distance. And, the Ohio River doesn’t wait long – maybe a quarter mile – before she’s three or four feet across. After another quarter mile, she’s ten or twelve feet across and two or three feet deep in places. Rare, small brook trout dart from shadow to shadow in some of the deeper pools and patches of delicious wild leeks crowd together on the muddy banks. We arrived where two ridges crowd together, creating steep inclines on either side of us.
Water noisily pushes out of a spring and over a crop of stones.
The stones must have been arranged by the glaciers who left them there to form a staircase into the secret rooms of the Earth. When the glaciers left, moss moved in to cover the staircase with their rich, green carpets.
This was the place.
I have formulated two basic questions for the Ohio River to guide this journey: Who are you? and, what do you need? When you ask someone these two questions, you should be prepared to answer them yourself. So, standing where spring water joined the young river, I began with who I am. I started with my name and explained that I am a writer and lawyer. I told her about my mother and father, my sister, my extended family, and how much of my family lives downstream from where I stood. I told her that I was hoping to write a book about her.
This was easy enough. But, I dreaded the second question. I dreaded it because of what it meant I’d have to share with the Ohio River. More than anything, I need help with the despair that haunts me. As I stood next to the river, an impulse came to me. In a gesture of raw and spontaneous honesty, I placed my palm in the water and touched the river’s face. While doing this, I opened myself to the memories of my worst struggles with despair. I let the images flow unhindered through my mind.
This is how I told the Ohio River what I need.
I cannot touch my readers. And, even if I could, it is not possible to pour my experiences into you like I poured them into the Ohio River. I will, however, try to distill these experiences into words to describe what depression feels like for me. A major part of me wishes to keep these experiences secret. But, if William Styron is correct, and the prevention of suicide will be hindered until there is a general awareness of the nature of the pain of depression, then perhaps my experiences will contribute to this growing general awareness.
When the night’s shadows begin climbing through the bedroom window, the distractions have run out, and the last remnants of peace flee, the whispers persisting at the edges of my consciousness grow louder.
The whispers sew dissatisfaction, discomfort, and despair. They gossip about my fears, inadequacies, and insecurities. I try two things at first. I ignore them. Then, I reason with them. Ignoring them works for a while, but they always come back, especially when I am tired or stressed. Stress seems perpetual. Writing publicly and honestly about ecocide is stressful because to do so you must gaze at the problem without looking away. Arundhati Roy was correct when she wrote: “The trouble is that once you see it, you can’t unsee it. And once you’ve seen it, keeping quiet, saying nothing, becomes as political an act as speaking out. There’s no innocence. Either way, you’re accountable.” Being a lawyer comes with a different set of stresses – the deadlines, the desire to represent my clients to the best of my ability, the undeniable, first-hand experiences of injustice in the so-called “justice” system, the frustration accompanying that sadistic irony…
Reasoning with depression works for as long as I have energy to argue with it. “If writing is so stressful, if being a lawyer is so difficult, why not quit?” the whispers ask. At the first, tiniest sign of doubt, the whispers become bolder, more aggressive. I scramble to fight them off, but I tire. My back spasms. My legs tremble, wobble, and cramp. The acid of anxiety rips through my gut. Finally, I collapse. The whispers seize their opportunity to feed and I sink deeper and deeper with ravenous doubts burrowing into me.
I’m desperate for peace, but I’d settle for the absence of war.
Sleep is a viable tactic, at first. But, when I sleep, I dream. And, depression poisons my dreams. Nightmares hold me in replays of the worst times in my life. Or, they project the worst possible futures. Night terrors force me awake as I spring up in bed screaming and shivering. I try to remember a time when I did not feel like this. Memory’s well opens before me. I know, from experience, the water is cold. Maybe the fear that accompanies my plunge attracts the worst. Or, maybe it’s a harsh rule of consciousness that says you cannot use memory to run from memory. Seeking any memory opens you to all memory.
I am met, first, with the darkest images. I thrash about trying to get away and then, failing that, simply to produce some warmth for myself. My personal history appears to me in those freezing waters like a funnel. I see my life descending, even from birth as if it was predestined, to those chilling moments where I stand in front of the bathroom mirror grinding sleeping pills into a powder with a butter knife. In my countless replays of these memories, I have pressed my consciousness so forcefully over the events that the details are preserved in crystalline clarity. I remember how wrinkly the dress shirt I still wore that evening from my day’s work as a public defender was. I remember the satisfaction I felt upon realizing I’d never have to wear a tie again. I see the wry smile that formed on my lips as I opened my wallet to find one single dollar bill – my bottom dollar. I remember the smell of lacquered wood through the paper as I pressed my nostril to one end of the rolled bill while pushing the other end into the powder. I remember the mild, humorous surprise at the ease at which the actions came to me. Where did I learn to do this? I had never snorted anything before.
After I inhaled the ground pills, I dumped the rest of the bottle into my hand. I remember how one pill stuck in the lines on my palm. I wondered what a palm reader would say about that. I remember the way the pills clacked against my teeth. The scariest detail I remember – the memory that haunts me the most – is the strange sense of calm that washed over me as I put on my pajamas, climbed into bed, pulled the blanket to my chin, and folded my hands on my chest. The pain, I knew, would soon be over. There was ecstasy in that knowledge. I wish I never felt that ecstasy. It can be so seductive sometimes, so welcoming, as it reaches towards me with a warm smile offering what it promises is the ultimate antidote for the pain.
I flee the memory and swim as hard as I can for the surface, but shades of guilt catch me on the way up. There’s the residue of guilt that surrounds my memories of attempting suicide. There’s the guilt that attaches to my inability to stamp the memory of that poisonous ecstasy out. There is also the guilt that accompanies my realization that I am cycling again, that I have forgotten all that I have learned, all that I have promised myself about revisiting the past.
I wonder if I am an addict – addicted to despair, addicted to guilt. I remember that the word “addict” comes from the Latin addicere. The definition of addicere includes “to be bound to” or “to enslave.” I definitely feel enslaved, bound against my will, to depression.
At times, these memories cause me to want to fall to the ground, punching and kicking like a child throwing a temper tantrum. I am angry, but more than anything I want to convert the emotional pain into a physical pain. Physical pain, at least, has an identifiable source. The pain of depression is rooted nowhere, but hurts everywhere.
I do not punch and kick the ground. Instead, I weep. Eventually, I exhaust myself. I sit wet from sweat and tears. My mind settles down, but an empty, hungover feeling takes hold. It’s happened again like so many times before. I am scared it will never not happen again. The void remains.
Sharing is dangerous. Writing these experiences on a page gives them a physical reality.
Speaking them out loud – even softly, just above the sounds of flowing water – gives them a life they did not have before. And, what is shared, cannot be unshared. Though I was exhausted, I was reluctant to pull my hand from the water and the Ohio River’s face. I was reluctant to break this connection with the her. When at last I did, I found a stone to sit on, and sighed. I gathered myself and finally asked the Ohio River who she is and what she needs. At first, all I heard was my own anxiety. Is that how you introduce yourself to a river? Will the Ohio River think I’m just feeling sorry for myself? Am I just feeling sorry for myself? As these thoughts bounced around my skull, the breeze blew some lingering rain from the aspen branches above me.
The drops fell into a nearby pool with the small sounds of distant chimes. And, the song began.
I focused on the rain water dropping into the pool for a few moments. Then, a few feet away, my ears located the liquid murmurs of water brushing a submerged stone’s face. After a few seconds, my hearing drifted to a melodic trickle deftly running over a bed of gravel. Each instance of moving water colliding with a pebble created a new and unique note. Each of these notes formed a tune more complex and soothing than any human has ever played. I don’t know how long I sat there. My consciousness spilled across the landscape, gently beckoned by a diversity of sensory details. My awareness flowed over each inch of water I could see. Inch by inch, I experienced new delights and fascinations.
Finally, I slipped back into myself. As I returned, I realized my mind was empty of anxiety.
The river pulled me from the war in my head and embraced me with her calming voice. She approached me sensually, intimately. She showed me her softest parts, those fragile motions of water that form her body. When I asked the Ohio River what she needs, she answered with what I need. Peace.
Will Falk is the author of How Dams Fall: On Representing the Colorado River in the First-Ever American Lawsuit Seeking Rights for a Major Ecosystem. He is a practicing rights of Nature attorney and a member of DGR.